Debts: The Good, the Bad and the Hidden. Bringing Family, Kin, Commerce and Consumption Debts Together

Debts: The Good, the Bad and the Hidden. Bringing Family, Kin, Commerce and Consumption Debts Together

Margareth Lanzinger, Matthias Donabaum, Janine Maegraith, University of Vienna
Vom - Bis
15.09.2022 - 17.09.2022
Claudia Rapberger, Institut für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte, Universität Wien

The international workshop Debts. The Good, the Bad and the Hidden. Bringing Family, Kin, Commerce and Consumption Debts Together was hosted by the research project “The Role of Wealth in Defining and Constituting Kinship Spaces from 16th to the 18th Century” at the University of Vienna, funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). The Project Team – MARGARETH LANZINGER, JANINE MAEGRAITH and MATTHIAS DONABAUM – opened the Workshop by presenting the project and thus already provided an introduction of the workshop-topic: The workshop aimed to look at the socio-economic practices that arose around debt and credit as a common link of familial, commercial, institutional and gender relations. The conference papers therefore intended to bring together family, kin, commerce, and consumption debts.

Credit Requirements

HEINRICH LANG (Leipzig) opened the workshop by presenting the case of the rich Florentine patrician Camilla Salviati Serristori who became a widow in 1531 after the early death of her husband, who had been a landowner and partner in a merchant banking company. The records of his personal and business dealings were left behind in two account books. Lang uses these books to show how the actors of different generations tried to gain control of the enormous patrimony – which was also mortgaged with a huge amount of debts. By doing so he put a particular focus on making the invisible visible: Although Camilla never owned these books, the entries relating to the widow show how she managed her deceased husband’s property and liabilities.

MATTEO POMPERMAIER (Stockholm) introduced a different perspective on the workshop-topic: namely, accessing credit markets through a systemic approach. He argues this could make their complexity more understandable, shed light on the relationships between different lenders, and especially between supply and demand. His object of study are Venetian households in the 18th century. They had numerous possibilities at their disposal through which they could access the credit market. By examining the structure of this credit offer (with a special focus on consumption credit) – which turns out to be very segmented – he was able to identify important variables that may have influenced and guided individuals' decisions to turn to one or another lender.

The workshop addressed money and debt arrangements of different social groups, also among them is the nobility. SIGLINDE CLEMENTI (Bolzano) turned her attention to them: Her paper dealt with the multifaceted handling of marriage goods in the early modern Tyrolean nobility. She first showed the legal background for this, then illustrated through a case study how this was not always adhered to in practice and that marriage estates were rather a result of negotiations – especially when there were conflicts. Furthermore, she outlines how the marriage goods – consisting of marriage portion, morning gift and counter dowry – were constituted and how the marriage portion had a particular intermediate status. From her observations, she also makes clear in which moments interest arose in marriage matters; namely, when the marriage goods were not paid out. Two other central moments in dealing with marriage goods as credit-relationship elements are, according to her, the marriage agreement and the widow’s payment.

The next paper remained in early modern southern Tyrol, but moved to different social groups: peasants, cottagers, agricultural laborers, and craftsmen. This area is also the subject of JANINE MAEGRAITH’s (Vienna) research, which showed that land changed hands frequently via succession, sale, exchange, leasehold, or cession. She analyses financing of all wealth transfers to overcome the dichotomy of familial or commercial wealth transfers and to reveal a much broader involvement of actors. By elaborating financing portfolios, she showed the importance of credit and mortgages in a wide range of land transfer varieties – from inheritance to sale. By providing an insight into her source material, she illustrated how these options were deliberately applied by people, depending on their financial situations. In addition to highlighting the modalities of payment, she also looked at the role that gender and family relationships played.

Mountainous Areas

The second panel of the workshop dealt with transit(ional) areas and the economic activities and money transactions of their inhabitants as well as migrants. The common theme of the four presentations was that all of them took a closer look on mountainous areas. This panel was opened by RICARDO ROSSI (Zurich), who focused on the financial mechanisms and networks from residents of the Italian speaking regions of the Three Leagues, who were linked to a high degree of mobility. Rossi showed that the people who oriented their businesses on a combination of seasonal migration and trade often needed to hold wealth e.g., in form of land, to gain access to credit networks. He outlined that the networks not only worked as credit relationships but also as an exchange system of goods and information, in which both relatives and non-relatives participated. Women often took an active role in these processes.

LAURENCE FONTAINE (Paris) presented a study on communities of the Upper Dauphine. She provided insights into a broad field of credit relationships that permeated these communities, sorted by social hierarchies and diverse settings. In doing so, she showed that while credit relationships were important within a family, they also went far beyond that. Furthermore, she analysed the characteristics of these credit relationships, with a special focus on interest rates, guarantees and duration. She concluded by looking at the dynamics of debt in this society, arguing that it followed a competing logic that was shaped by the interests of debtors and creditors and the distribution of their power in addition to economic factors.

Another social group of residents of mountainous areas were the professional group of innkeepers in Tyrol, whom MARGARETH LANZINGER (Vienna) has dedicated her paper to. She suggests that the high social status and wealth of the innkeepers in Tyrol resulted, in addition to their extensive economic activities, from the importance of the inns as an essential facility on transit and important traffic routes. Using two detailed case studies, she showed how marriage, family and business were tightly intertwined. By illustrating the probate proceeding of an innkeeper and also wine trader in Kastelruth whose case is unusually well documented, Lanzinger presented how debts could become visible and what they make visible. She brings together different sources of where the innkeeper has written down his payments and debts and reveals the contextualization of the different transactions.

Urban Spaces

From the mountainous areas, CHRISTIAN HAGEN (Kiel) has brought us back to the urban environment. He examines creditors and debtors in late medieval Vienna. As sources for this, he uses books that represent an early form of land register. One of these books deals with revenues from houses and vineyards from an area just outside the city walls and in addition to money lending among Christians, it also documents transactions between Jews and Christians. Since Hagen’s study aims to get a new view on economic interactions between Jews and Christians, he draws findings from the book about certain creditors and debtors and their way of acting on the market. For example, he could show that the debtors were not particularly poor but not particularly rich either. He was also able to identify different creditors and observe how they acted on the financial market at different times of their lives, and by including their family members.

MARIA WEBER (Munich) described a specific way of referring to the workshop-theme, namely by “doing debt” as she calls it. She presented the findings she had drawn from an analysis of debt-related court records of the 16th century Augsburg municipal court. For this, she had chosen a practice-theoretical approach, which aims to bring to light those elements that constitute the social phenomenon of “doing debt”. Through an in-depth analysis of the legal records, she examined the patterns as well as the modalities of credit relations and reveals the most diverse mechanisms and courses of action. These “bundle of activities”, as she names it, characterizes the multifaced phenomenon of “doing debt”. Furthermore, she argues, that it was based on informal and formal negotiations between debtor and creditor.

A hitherto rather unexplored type of (hidden) payment transaction was presented by ELISE DERMINEUR (Stockholm). She investigates payment transactions, which were negotiated between private individuals and were not certified by a third party such as a notary: namely the non-intermediated credit. Her sources are probate inventories of a rural area in southern Alsace between 1650 and 1790. Dermineur pays particular attention to deferred payments, which are sales processes where payment is postponed into the future. In her presentation, she was able to show the modalities and functioning of this payment method and at the same time illustrated the complex socio-economic reality of the people who used it. Her contribution raised many further questions, such as whether deferred payments also featured interest rates.

MATTHIAS DONABAUM (Vienna) has turned his attention to the orphan assets in the small town of Eggenburg in Lower Austria. The wealth left behind by parents to their (underaged) children was invested by their guardians to pay for their upbringing. In his paper he addressed questions of what role the orphans' assets played on the local credit market, how they were invested and what legal framework conditions these investments were subject to. Using hypothecary records he draws details on the local credit market and showed what social networks were evident from this credit date. Complementing his sources through Guardianship bills, he was also able to show through a case study what the investment of their assets by their guardian meant for the orphaned Brandstetter siblings.


Another topic of the workshop was bankruptcy, which was addressed in three presentations showing cases where things went wrong. In this framework ERICH LANDSTEINER (Vienna) told the story of the merchant banker couple Jacobina and Jobst Croy. After Jobst Croy went bankrupt, they were persecuted by their families because they had stood as guarantors for the loans and demanded their money back, which eventually led to their arrest. Landsteiner especially stressed Jacobina Cory’s strategies of claiming her ignorance and insisting on her female privileges to get out of prison – because the degree of her involvement in her husband´s business was decisive for the jurisdiction. Landsteiner, on the other hand, suggests that her agency in the company business was much more extensive than she claimed.

FLORIAN ANDRETSCH (Vienna) illustrated the case of the insolvent nobleman Karl Joseph von Lamberg-Sprinzenstein from Lower Austria. In the 1730s he had accumulated such an enormous amount of debts, that he could neither repay these debts nor pay taxes. In addition to an overview of the nobleman's financial situation, Andretsch also showed how the state intervened to regulate the nobleman's financial situation: Karl Joseph, unlike in Landsteiner's case, was not arrested but lived in freedom while his financial situation was subject to certain conditions and administered by the state. Furthermore, he has shown what bankruptcy meant for the various family members – especially regarding succession – and how individual members dealt with it.

An investigation of 18th and 19th century Sheffield family firms in moments of crisis was undertaken by JAMES SHAW (Sheffield). He used three case studies to illustrate how family networks within these businesses were negotiated under economic pressure and whether they could be relied upon in critical times. Based on correspondence, Shaw was able to show the ambiguity of such situations, because on the one hand family members felt an obligation to help, but on the other hand they also protected their own interests. His work with letters has also revealed that essential factors in negotiating business and financial matters were the interests, power relations and feelings of the parties involved.

In the closing discussion, it became evident that the title of the workshop turned out to be right: debts could appear good, bad or hidden. The broad spectrum of research fields addressed in the papers covered many facets of this diverse issue and revealed incredibly complex and multilayered credit worlds. The workshop was able to draw many connections between them but also raised new questions and stimulated further thinking in this manner.

Conference Overview

Welcome and Introduction

Margareth Lanzinger (Vienna) / Matthias Donabaum (Vienna) / Janine Maegraith (Vienna)

Panel I – Credit Requirements: Necessity or Facilitator?

Heinrich Lang (Leipzig): Accounting Debts: Camilla Salviati Serristori and the ambiguous heritage of Giovanni Serristori’s assets and financial liabilities in 1531

Matteo Pompermaier (Stockholm): Consumer Credit in Early Modern Venice: Forms and Logics of Households’ Debt

Siglinde Clementi (Bolzano): Marriage on Credit. Disbursement Modalilties of Marriage Goods in the Early Modern Tyrolean Nobility

Janine Maegraith (Vienna): Financing Wealth Transfers in Early Modern Tyrol

Panel II – Transit(ional) Areas: Mountains, Residents and Migrants

Ricardo Rossi (Zurich): Wandering Debts and Settled Accounts: The Role of Credits in the Itineraries of Actors and Goods in the Three Leagues, 1660s–1790s

Laurence Fontaine (Paris): Solidarities, Control and Contingencies. The Multiple Faces of Debt in the Mountain Communities of the Upper Dauphine in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Margareth Lanzinger (Vienna): Innkeepers as Creditors and Debtors in the Eighteenth Century

Panel III – Urban Spaces: Documented Debts and Informal Agreements

Christian Hagen (Kiel): A Money Market Inside and Outside the City Walls – Creditors and Debtors in Late Medieval Vienna

Maria Weber (Munich): Doing Debt in Early Sixteenth Century Augsburg

Elise Dermineur (Stockholm): Non-Intermediated Credit in Early Modern France

Matthias Donabaum (Vienna): Orphans and Credit in Lower Austria, c. 1740–1790

Panel IV – Bankruptcy: When Things Go Wrong

Erich Landsteiner (Vienna): Big Money and Cruel Kin. The Bankruptcy of Jobst and Jacobina Croy in Vienna 1591

Florian Andretsch (Vienna): Punishment or Bailout? The Governmental and Familial Management of a Lower Austrian Noble House’s Bankruptcy at the Eve of the Reform Era

James Shaw (Sheffield): Family Networks, Bankruptcy and Insolvency in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Sheffield